Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stanford Women Off to Fast Start

Heading into the third weekend of the 2014 women's college season, Stanford has been the most impressive team thus far, dominating the most recent AVCA national poll. The Cardinal (4-0) is by no means the only undefeated team; 10 teams in the Top 25 have perfect records. However, it's the difficulty of Stanford's opposition -- Iowa State (in Ames), Nebraska (in Lincoln), Penn State, and Illinois -- that makes the Cardinal's record so noteworthy.

Another challenge Stanford has overcome thus far is the absence of two of last year's seniors, three-time All-American MB Carly Wopat and All-Pac 12 honorable mention OH Rachel Williams. Let's explore how the Cardinal has adapted offensively. I first compared Stanford's offensive statistics for 2013 and 2014 (the latter statistics, based on only four matches, should of course be taken with caution). As the first graph shows, the Cardinal has not hit at quite as high a clip as last year, while its opponents (in the aggregate) have hit a little better this year than last. Still, this year's Stanford squad has outhit the opposition by a sizable margin (.275 to .186).

As the next chart shows, Williams (807 total spike attempts) and Wopat (606) together took roughly 35% of the Cardinal's 4,005 total swings last year. These two non-returning players from 2013 are shown in different shades of grey below, and the percentages on the second line below each player's name signify the share of the team's total swings they have taken (you can click on the graphics to enlarge them).

That's a lot of offense to replace. Three key Stanford returnees are Brittany Howard (shown in dark cardinal red in the chart), Jordan Burgess (pink), and Inky Ajanaku (bright red). The fact that Burgess's and Ajanaku's line-segments are wider this year than last signifies that they are each taking on a larger share of the Cardinal hitting. Whereas Ajanaku took 12.8% of Stanford's spike attempts last year, she is taking 16.7% of them this year. Burgess's share has gone from 20.3% to 28.1%. (It's pretty common for outside hitters such as Burgess to take more attempts than middle blockers such as Ajanaku.)

Morgan Boukather, who attempted only 48 spikes (around 1% of the team's total) in 2013, is way more active this season, having taken 17.7% of the Cardinal's attempts. Note that Boukather hits from the right side (opposite the setter in the rotation), whereas Williams and Wopat hit, respectively, from the left and middle positions on the front line.

Beyond how frequently an attacker is called upon to hit, there is the question of how effectively she is doing it. Ajanaku has upped her hitting percentage from the already high .438 in 2013 to .474 this season. Burgess, though getting more swings, is not hitting as efficiently this year (a hitting percentage of .194, compared to .294 last year). We'll see if she continues to get so many attempts. Boukather has been a bit up-and-down so far this season, hitting .167 vs. Iowa State, .417 vs. Nebraska, .353 vs. Penn State, and .097 vs. Illinois.

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